Recognizing Smartness and Addressing Status in the Classroom

When status plays out in the complex world of the classroom, it takes many shapes. Although blatant dominance, insults, or non-participation are easy to spot, the more subtle manifestations take skill to identify and remedy. Effectively intervening with status problems first requires analysis of the situation. Figuring out the best strategy is often a trial-and-error process. Teachers get better at managing status in their classrooms over time, but even accomplished teachers run into challenges that force them to further sharpen their intervention tools.

The following strategies outline a starting point for status interventions. Unfortunately, this is not a recipe that will make status problems magically disappear. Status will always be part of our social world. The trick is to manage it such that students begin to reimagine themselves and their peers in the context of their competence and not their deficits. Every class you teach will have different personalities and dynamics, so these will play out differently in each circumstance. Nonetheless, here are some tested status interventions that can be adapted to any classroom.

Establishing and Maintaining Norms

Effective classroom norms support equal-status interactions. In the previous discussion of status problems, I suggested some structures teachers can use, such as “no hands, just minds,” that help curb status problems. These all communicate norms for participating and interacting. For our purposes, I will use the following definition of norms:

Classroom norms are agreed-upon ways of behaving.

Establishing norms requires a conversation with students. Some teachers do this interactively, asking students to contribute their answers to the question, “What makes you comfortable in a classroom?” Other teachers let students know that they have found certain behaviors helpful in making a positive classroom environment where students feel comfortable to learn. However they are arrived at, posting a list of norms on the wall as a reminder can help keep these at the forefront.

Norms can help curb status problems. For example, establishing the norm of no put-downs can minimize negative talk about oneself or others.  Examples of other norms that help support equal status interactions include the following:

  • Take turns.
  • Listen to others’ ideas.
  • Disagree with ideas, not people.
  • Be respectful.
  • Helping is not the same as giving answers.
  • Confusion is part of learning.
  • Say your “becauses.”

Since norms are associated with classroom behavior, they are often thought of as a classroom management tool. In a sense, they are, but they go beyond that. Classroom management is often understood as serving the important goal of managing the crowd in the classroom. Students may or may not value that goal. The use of norms as I describe them helps students learn.

To make norms more relevant to students, always link norms to your learning goals. For example, helping is not the same as giving answers values explanations and learning over the completion of work. Similarly, say your “becauses” values the mathematical work of justification over assertions of correct answers that may be based in status. This norm also helps alleviate the problem of nonmathematical assertion of an argument by helping a lower-status student demand that a higher-status student better explain an assertion. In classrooms where this norm is in use, I hear students say to one another, “Yeah, but why? You didn’t say your ‘because.’”

Telling students expectations for acceptable behavior does not, of course, ensure that they will always meet them. Norms require maintenance. New situations might create a need to reestablish them. Even new content—particularly content that highlights differences in prior achievement—can heighten status issues and therefore require a strong reminder about classroom norms.

Addressing Status through Norms

Over time, teachers get better at analyzing which norms might help shift negative status dynamics in their classrooms. Teachers pick one or two norms for a particular activity and tell students, “While you are working on this, I am going to watch how you do on these norms.” The teacher then reminds students of the expectation for acceptable behavior.

Sometimes the choice of norms comes from a teacher’s reading of the dynamics in prior class sessions. For example, if student conversations are coming too close to personal attacks, a teacher might highlight the norms be respectful and disagree with ideas, not people. If the teacher then circulates around the room and reminds students of these norms, he is not picking on problem students; rather, the teacher is stating a classroom goal that everybody is trying to work on.

Likewise, teachers can predict mathematical activities that might lead to status problems and use norms to head these off. Any topic that is confusing may make students vulnerable to status concerns. Reminding students that confusion is a part of learning can help. I have heard teachers say, “Now, I don’t expect you to get this problem quickly. It’s really hard and you will need each other’s help. If you get confused, that’s great because it means you are learning.”

Sometimes, specific topics expose students’ status concerns. Calculations with fractions commonly bring out insecurity in previously low-achieving students and impatience in students who are already fluent in these calculations: a recipe for a status collision. Anticipating this, a teacher can let the class know that she will be watching for the norms helping is not the same as giving answers and say your “becauses.” The first norm will send a clear message that students who can calculate quickly need to do more than show the other students their answers. The second norm offers less confident students a means to demand explanations from their peers (“Okay, but you didn’t say the ‘because’”).

Multiple-Ability Treatment

So far, this discussion of status has acknowledged the different status levels of students in any classroom and how it can undermine productive mathematical conversations. No doubt, addressing status through norms is crucial to creating equal-status interactions. By helping students interact more productively—listening respectfully, justifying their thinking—we help support meaningful mathematical conversations.

Norms, however, will take us only so far. Unless we address underlying conceptions of smartness, we risk reverting to the commonly held belief that group work benefits struggling students because smart students help them. As long as we have a simplistic view of some students as smart and others as struggling, we will have status problems in our classrooms. (Please see my previous post on different kinds of mathematical smartness.)  Students quickly pick up on assessments of their ability. For example, when teachers arrange collaborative groups to evenly distribute strong, weak, and average students, children will figure out that scheme and rapidly learn which slot they fill. No doubt, learners benefit from seeing more expert performance and should have opportunities to do so. But if we value only certain kinds of expertise, the same students will always play the role of experts. The question then becomes, What kinds of mathematical competence have a place in your classroom activities? If the mathematics is rich enough, the strengths of different students will come into play, rendering the common mixed-ability grouping strategy useless. Ordering the students by achievement and evenly distributing strong, weak, and average students across the groups will no longer be enough.

In fact, an essential practice for a multiple-ability classroom is random group assignment. If we believe that students can all learn from each other, then group assignments should have no underlying design based on assessments of ability. Teachers often do this by using a wall-hanging seating chart that has pockets for each student’s name. When it is time to rearrange groups, they will shuffle the cards and simply redistribute them in the pockets to make a transparent show of the randomness of group assignments. If a teacher judges a certain pairing of students to be unwise, she can publicly state the reason for this (e.g., “You two tend to get too silly together, so I think I will switch you out”). These reasons are not judgments about smartness but are instead social considerations. Random group assignment, however, is just one component of multiple-ability treatments.

As I said in my post on smartness, in schools, the most valued kind of mathematical competence is typically quick and accurate calculation. Evaluating people on one dimension of mathematical competence will rank students from most to least competent. This rank order usually relates to students’ academic status, and students tend to be aware of it. One way to interrupt status is to recognize multiple mathematical abilities. Instead of a one-dimensional rank order, we create a multidimensional competence space. Although some students may have multiple mathematical strengths, more places in which to get better surely exist. Likewise, a student who ranks low on the hierarchy produced when we focus on quick and accurate calculation may have a real strength at making astute connections, working systematically, or representing ideas clearly. We cannot address status hierarchies without emphasizing multiple mathematical competencies in the classroom.

A multiple-ability classroom represents a dramatic shift in the topography of mathematical ability. Instead of lining students up in a row in order of smartness, a multiple-ability classroom has students standing on different peaks and valleys of a hilly multidimensional terrain. No one student is always clearly above another. This structure may unsettle students who are used to being on top, as well as those whose vantage points and contributions have been presumed less valuable. In other words, challenging the status hierarchy by developing a multiple-ability view can provoke strong emotions from students, positive and negative. Teachers should not be surprised to see this response in their classrooms.

Multiple Ability Treatments

A multiple-ability treatment comes in the launch of a task. After presenting the directions and expectations, teachers list the specific mathematical abilities that students will need for the task and add the phrase, “No one of us has all of these abilities, so you will need each other to get this work done.” By publicly acknowledging the need for more than just quick and accurate calculation, teachers offer an in for a broader range of students. Multiple-ability treatments do other work too, particularly fostering interdependence.

Assigning Competence

The two status interventions described so far operate on the classroom level. Norms give clear expectations for behavior to push students toward more productive mathematical conversations. Multiple-ability treatments highlight teachers’ valuing of broader mathematical competencies.

The next step is to help students recognize where they and their classmates are located on the complex topography of mathematical competence to shift their self-concept and their ideas about others. Students need to recognize these other competencies for themselves so that they know their own strengths and can work confidently on hard problems. They need to recognize the strengths of their peers in order to interrupt assumptions based on a simplistic smartness hierarchy. If students believe their classmates have something to contribute, they have a mathematically motivated reason to listen to and learn from each other.

Teachers can communicate these messages to students through the practice of assigning competence.

Assigning competence is a form of praise where teachers catch students being smart. The praise is public, specific to the task, and intellectually meaningful.

The public part of assigning competence means that this praise is not an aside to an individual student or a communication with the parent. It takes place in the public realm of the classroom, whether in small-group activity or whole-class discussion. It needs to be specific to the task so that students make a connection between their behavior and their mathematical contribution. Simply saying, “Good job!” is not enough. Students need to know exactly what they did that is valued. The praise must be intellectually meaningful so that it contributes to students’ sense of smartness. Praising a student for a “beautiful poster” does not qualify as assigning competence, because making a beautiful poster does not display mathematical intellect. In contrast, if a teacher praises a student for a clear representation on a poster that helps explain an idea, that is intellectually meaningful because it is tied to mathematics.

I hope this post gives you some insight into how to address status and value smartness in your classroom. No doubt, this is challenging work, But I think the payoff in mathematical learning is well worth it.


16 thoughts on “Recognizing Smartness and Addressing Status in the Classroom

  1. Your line about: “The use of norms as I describe them helps students learn.” made me pause and think.

    Learn is a loaded word, and rightly so. I am thinking that learning, in part, means providing students an opportunity to ‘form their opinion’. That way, students can have an ‘internal dialogue’ take place when it comes time to share and listen to responses publicly. Reflecting on my early teaching days I know I did not provide all students an opportunity to form an opinion because I regrettably provided a stage where a quickly raised hand was honoured above the ‘thinking’. I can only assume that some students in my class, at that time, would get in the habit of not thinking and instead waiting for someone to raise their hand, so the lesson would move on.

    I am trying to change.

    Developing norms with students, recording and posting norms in our classrooms, and referring to it throughout a learning arc is important. Even so, I am thinking that it is essential for the teacher (another status player) to publicly hold themselves accountable to the norms as well.

    If a student asks a teacher for help on a math question, then we as the teacher need to adhere to the norms of “Confusion is part of learning” and “Helping is not the same as giving answers” too.

    I shouldn’t swoop in for the rescue and make deposits of knowledge in students minds, in the Paulo Freire sense.

    If I did, then I in effect have not provided a space to help students learn.

    Thanks for sharing your expertise.


  2. This is such a thoughtful response, Paul. I admire your commitment to your students’ learning. I will be interested to see how you continue to ask questions, reflect and grow. Thank you for sharing your ideas!


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